Venezuela’s deepening economic and political dysfunction have spurred waves of outmigration in recent years.
In the years since Hugo Chavez took office in 1999, well-off Venezuelans left the country, followed by educated professionals, and, most recently, the youth and middle class.
Now another marginalized group has begun to head for the exits: Venezuelan Jews, who have in the past moved to the US or Panama but have struggled to do so as Venezuela’s economic crisis drains more of the country’s wealth.
Official Israeli figures cited by The Washington Post list 111 Venezuelan Jews as immigrating to Israel in 2015, or making “aliyah,” as it is referred to in Hebrew.
That 2015 total was more than double the number who immigrated in 2012. Official totals for 2016 have yet to be released, but a charity that helps Jews from troubled areas reach Israel told The Post that it helped about 90 people get to the Middle Eastern country.
Venezuela has a long history of Jewish communities. The oldest such community was a Sephardic congregation in Curacao — a Dutch territory just off Venezuela’s Caribbean coast — that dates back to 1651. Since then, Venezuela has, at times, encouraged European migration, and Jewish people were able to integrate with relative alacrity.
Venezuela’s recent relationship with Israel, however, has been fraught.
After moving away from the US in the wake of the 2002 attempted coup against Chavez, Venezuela denounced Israel for the 2006 invasion of Lebanon, which Chavez called a “new Holocaust” against Palestinians and Lebanese.
The governments of Chavez and his successor, Nicolas Maduro, have been quick to condemn Israel went it comes in conflict with neighbors, especially Palestine and Iran, with whom Venezuela has formed close alliances. And their broad rhetoric has been accused of stoking anti-Semitic attitudes and behavior.
“For several years, we have seen anti-Semitic accusations and themes appear in Venezuelan public discourse,” Jonathan A. Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League said in August 2016, in response to anti-Semitic imagery that appeared on a Venezuelan magazine.
“At present, most Venezuelan Jews do not face open discrimination from their neighbors,” Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez, a Foreign Policy contributor and professor at Northwestern, wrote in late 2014. “Even so, a sense of dread and isolation is pervasive among much of the community.”
Chavez expelled the Israeli ambassador in 2009, and the two countries still do not have diplomatic relations, which complicates Venezuelan Jews’ efforts to relocate.
In the last month, nine such immigrants have found their efforts to move stymied by the resistance of the Israeli government.
Israel’s law of return requires Jews of choice who want to relocate to Israel to have been converted in a “recognized Jewish community” with a full-time rabbi and an active synagogue, according to Haaretz.
The nine Venezuelans were converted by a Conservative rabbinical court in 2014, after three years of study. Their hometown, Maracay, does not have a recognized Jewish community, but the group joined a synagogue in the nearby city of Valencia, where the Jewish community is recognized.
Despite that, Israel’s Interior Ministry told Haaretz that “during the entire period when they were preparing for their conversion and in the period that followed, they did not belong to a Jewish community.”
The decision has spurred frustration and criticism from a number of people from across Judaism’s denominations.
Documentation provided to the Jewish Agency — recommendations from which the Israeli Interior Ministry typically bases its immigration-eligibility decisions on — confirmed that the nine Venezuelans had joined the community in Valencia. In this case, it appears that the ministry disregarded the agency’s recommendation, and the chairman of the agency is reportedly considering intervening.
During a special Israeli parliament session at the end of December, at which American rabbis were present, Israel’s government was rebuked for its decision.
“These nine individuals underwent conversions that were 100 percent in line with the Law of Return, and I am saying that as an Orthodox rabbi,” said Asher Lopatin, a modern Orthodox rabbi, according to Haaretz. “They must be allowed to come to Israel.”
Race and ethnicity and their relation to Israel’s immigration decisions have been a controversial topic. The country has approved less than 1% of the asylum applications it’s received since signing the UN Refugee Convention 60 years ago.
Israel has also been resistant to granting asylum to African refugees, about 60,000 of whom have entered the country since 2005 — former Interior Minister Eli Yishai said Israel’s intention was to “make their lives miserable.”
“Sadly it is all too common that issues of race and denominational affiliation play into the decisions made by the Interior Ministry,” Andy Sacks, a rabbi and director of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly in Israel, said, according to Haaretz. Sacks also said the Israeli prime minister’s office ignored his requests to intervene.
Reuven Hammer, a rabbi and former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement, told Haaretz the ministry’s decision indicated a “hidden agenda” against non-Orthodox converts.
The current interior minister, Aryeh Deri, is the chairman of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.
Orthodox rabbis have spoken out against the decision, with one calling it a “dangerous precedent” during a meeting at the Israeli parliament and another telling Haaretz that the Venezuelans’ conversions were valid and that they should be allowed to immigrate.
“These people, regardless of the denomination of their conversions, decided to unite their destiny to that of our people,” Daniel Askenazi, an Orthodox rabbi and spiritual leader of the Jewish community in the western Colombia city of Barranquilla, told Haaretz. “It is our duty as Jews to raise our voices and demand that the State of Israel … expedite the adsorption of these people.”